Lying has become so comme il faut in our great nation today that those who tell the occasional truth seem rather odd, while those who rigorously seek out and follow the truth appear positively aberrational. For a sample of the dominant trend, we need look no further than CNN president Jon Klein's remarks on the departure of Robert Novak from his stable:
"Through the years, Bob has offered incisive analysis for much of CNN's programming, including Crossfire, The Capital Gang, Inside Politics, Evans and Novak, The Novak Zone, and Novak, Hunt and Shields. Bob has also been a valued contributor to CNN's political coverage."
Can anyone in this society of ours say what is really on his mind at any given moment? Must every announcement, every public statement, be papered in lies like some lame, last-minute Xmas gift for an unloved and distant relative?
So it was with strange relief that I read Michael Moore's piece for Rolling Stone, "The Mavericks of 2005", which included this reflection on truth-telling and the costs of departing from the cult of conformity:
As a rule, we are instructed from childhood that serious consequences shall arise if we dare to rock the boat. We learn instinctually that it is always better to go along so that we get along. To slip off the assembly line of groupthink means to risk ridicule, rejection, banishment. Being alone sucks, but being alone while you are attacked, smeared, and scorned is about the same as picking up a hot poker and jamming it in your eye. Who in their right mind would want to do that? Especially when conformity to the community offers as its reward acceptance, support, love and the chance to be comfortably numb.
I found a similar strain of insight in Lewis Lapham's column for Harper's Magazine in its January 2006 issue:
The capacity to notice the difference and the willingness to act on the observation presuppose the mind and presence of an adult—i.e., an individual whose character and moral sense is formed by his or her own thought and experience. Washington these days doesn't have much use for adults; they can't be trusted to go along with the program, play well with others, believe what they read in the newspapers. What is wanted is a quorum of dutiful children, who know that skepticism is wicked, and credulity a virtue that also stands and serves as job requirement for their successful rising in the ranks of the government and media bureaucracies. Like the anxious courtiers in feathered hats who once decorated the throne rooms of old Europe, they fit their convictions to the circumstances, borrow their sense and sensibility from the consensus present in the school dormitory or the Senate conference committee, in this year's color scheme or last week's opinion poll. If from time to time the consensus changes (the war in Iraq is good, the war in Iraq is bad), staff officers as well trained as Colonel Wilkerson in the art of devising exit strategies and politicians as willing as Senator John Kerry to change trains know that the American public would rather comfort a child than pardon a criminal or forgive a fool.
The message that Moore and Lapham are bringing inspires self-examination: they are saying that conformity is something that is drilled into us from a very early age, and that the game of compliance is played and continuously refined, virtually from our first years on the stage of reason and relationship. The belief system underlying conformity persists and reinforces itself, installing its code base of group adherence like a malignant software program on a computer's hard drive. As Lapham suggests, even in seeming dissent we are thus hard-coded into a system of programmed loyalty and group affiliation. Yet as Moore reminds us, there has been, and can be, no advancement in a society until enough people who have dispersed that program from within themselves appear and become active.
My private counseling practice is centered primarily upon allowing adults the opportunity of following the path of individualism, discovering the way clear of group adherence and the fear and guilt that it breeds within the psyche. To my mind, there is scarcely a more crucial practice of consciousness to be undertaken in this time and culture. It is the only way that we can fully return to our natural selves as individuals; it is the only way back to America—the nation that bred Jefferson, Paine, Thoreau, Anthony, Whitman, Stanton, King, and Emerson.
Just so it has a home in my mind, I call this path the way of "neo-transcendentalism." Over the coming weeks in the blog, I'll be spending some time on this motif, developing it and allowing it some room for self-expression. Drawing upon the insights of Moore and Lapham, I would start by suggesting that the neotranscendentalist spirit does not arise in society from being well-connected, publicly visible, or even artistically endowed. True dissent, the kind that moves the human race forward in understanding and freedom, arises out of a psychological tipping point of individual creativity—the sort of moment that Yeats would have called an "epiphany." Dissent that does not derive from such a source—that does not arise out of a clear center of mindfulness—is the kind of dissent that quickly spirals downward into the smoke and chaos of conflict, violence, and anarchy.
Dissent that furthers liberation and peace is the expression of one who has thoroughly and enduringly killed, within himself, the demons of war; of one who has learned in the crucible of lived experience that war is the scaly, fire-breathing beast whose black heart is conformity.